As an early follower, Elias became part of the mission to the Holy Land, and became a “provincial,” or person acting under the superior general of the Franciscan order, to the province of Syria, where he received new followers into the order. In 1220–21 Elias returned to Italy with St. Francis, who naming him to an even higher position in the order, as vicar-general. Five years later, in 1226, St. Francis died, Elias took on many responsibilities in Francis’s order of Friars Minor.
He is known for his announcement of the death of St. Francis to the order in a letter. He supervised the burial of St. Francis at Giorgio, and with the support of the Pope, he planned construction of the basilica at Assisi as a place for St. Francis’s final burial. Such a grand project was not really in the spirit of the Povarello who had chosen a life of extreme poverty. Under the authority of the pope, Elias collected money for the construction. He was opposed in this by many of St. Francis’s followers, and in 1227, Elias was rejected as general of the order. He continued, however, to work to build the basilica, which was begun with laying the first stone in 1228 on the day after Francis was canonized as a saint by the Church. The lower church was finished less than a year later, and in 1230, St. Francis’s remains were secretly brought to a crypt in the lower part of the basilica at Assisi just before the building was consecrated in 1230, and before the friars had assembled.
Elias has remained a controversial figure who was both very close to and loved Francis while he was alive, but was seen as seeking to move the order in a different direction against the will of the friars. The dispute was over the question of whether to impose strict poverty through the rule, or relax it—to move toward materialism or to retain Francis’s extreme asceticism. Elias governed the order again after his dismissal and was accused of diluting the purity of the order, and is said to have acted as a despot toward other early followers of Francis who objected to what he was doing. He gained a reputation as a lover of luxury, as well as a despotic ruler of the order. When he encountered papal attention, Elias became involved in the competitive politics between Pope Gregory IX and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and the pope forced him to resign as general of the order in 1232. He remained dedicated to the task of building the basilica and convent at Assisi, and then retired to Cortona, where he built another church in honor of St. Francis. He was excommunicated for supporting Frederick, the excommunicated emperor. A few days before his death, Elias repented of his sins and received Holy Communion from a priest at Cortona, and was buried in the church he had built there. He died outside the order of Friars Minor in which he had been such an important figure, who had loved St. Francis and been loved and trusted by him. Like many leaders who have followed strong spiritual figures, his ambition to honor Francis and shape the order blinded him to the need to follow the simple spirit of Francis when the saint was no longer present to lead him.
Source: Kevin Knight, “Elias of Cortona,” Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, 2012, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05382a.htm.